Isabel Hardman

Will the Beirut blast change Britain’s foreign policy?

Will the Beirut blast change Britain's foreign policy?
Lebanese protesters in Beirut protesting against Lebanon's political elite in April, Picture: Getty
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What should the British government do to help Lebanon recover from the Beirut explosion? Ministers say they are working to provide the Lebanese government with technical support and financial assistance, but they are coming under pressure from senior Conservative colleagues to use the disaster as a turning point in the way Britain approaches the Middle East generally. Tobias Ellwood, chair of the Defence Select Committee, and Tom Tugendhat, chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, have both called for Britain to take a more active role in the region, or risk seeing hostile states such as Iran and terrorist groups filling a 'vacuum'.

These two MPs have been instrumental in pushing Boris Johnson to toughen his approach to China in recent months. Both are now anxious that Lebanon and other countries have been left without support for too long, and that the implications of this could be extremely serious for British security, as well as the countries in question. Tugendhat today called for the Royal Navy to help rebuild parts of the city damaged by the blast, including the port, while Ellwood said that Britain should also work on some of the wider problems facing the region. Ellwood told Coffee House: 

There is a wider critical issue to do with governance and re-engaging with the Middle East as a whole, not just Lebanon. There's a lack of Western leadership and resolve on what our strategic interests are in the Middle East and the lack of clarity has left a vacuum which is quickly being filled by proxy state actors such as Iran. And terrorist groups which are training in the area already.

There is absolutely a more engaged role that Britain could play, including nudging America to lead on repairing the vacuum.

Tugendhat similarly thinks that Britain needs to step up to the plate on this, saying there is 'good support' among fellow MPs for a serious response. He says: 

The desire to act is high. We've been told we're global Britain for years. Let's act like it.

It would be tempting for ministers to offer a limited response to the explosion, citing the UK's own troubles with coronavirus as a reason for not getting more involved. But the argument here is that by ignoring other issues, the government could find itself with serious problems further down the line in the form of an even more unstable region around Lebanon and an increased terrorist threat. Just because both issues have fallen down the agenda during this pandemic doesn't mean they've gone away.